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Government Surveillance and Why Defining Privacy Matters in a Post‐Snowden World

Journal of Applied Philosophy

Published online on


There is a long‐running debate as to whether privacy is a matter of control or access. This has become more important following revelations made by Edward Snowden in 2013 regarding the collection of vast swathes of data from the Internet by signals intelligence agencies such as NSA and GCHQ. The nature of this collection is such that if the control account is correct then there has been a significant invasion of people's privacy. If, though, the access account is correct then there has not been an invasion of privacy on the scale suggested by the control account. I argue that the control account of privacy is mistaken. However, the consequences of this are not that the seizing control of personal information is unproblematic. I argue that the control account, while mistaken, seems plausible for two reasons. The first is that a loss of control over my information entails harm to the rights and interests that privacy protects. The second is that a loss of control over my information increases the risk that my information will be accessed and that my privacy will be violated. Seizing control of another's information is therefore harmful, even though it may not entail a violation of privacy. Indeed, seizing control of another's information may be more harmful than actually violating their privacy.